My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Catalyst, a prequel novel to the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One film, is a tightly-focused character piece revolving around the dreaded Empire's initial steps in constructing the moon-sized weapons platform, the Death Star (Note: that's no moon!).
James Luceno focuses his narrative on the Erso family and the Empire's engineer Orson Krennic. After Galen Erso and his wife, Lyra (pregnant with their baby girl, Jyn, who will be the all-grown-up lead heroine in Rogue One), are jailed, Krennic begins a long-game of strategy and manipulation to bring Galen, an energy systems researcher and pacifist, into the Empire's employ.
While the Erso's are a sympathetic bunch, this is really Krennic's book, in my opinion, and he's the most interesting and dynamic figure in the novel. Luceno draws on various characters from the Clone Wars animated series and prequel trilogy, with this book overlapping Episodes II and III, some of whom I had to Google to figure out why they were important. Not having seeing any of Clones Wars and having blanked out most of the prequel stuff, I had to do a little bit of research while reading to sate my curiosity, but it's hardly mandatory. But, again, Krennic is really star of the show, here.
Krennic is a classic Empire villain through-and-through. He's a bold chessman, duping and moving those unfortunate enough to orbit him into executing his larger plans, oftentimes unknowingly, and I really appreciated the level of subterfuge and guile this dude's capable of. He's cold, cunning, and calculating, and demonstrates exactly why the Empire is a supreme power to be feared and fought. Using the on-going battles against Separatist forces, Krennic all but gaslights Galen into working for the side of evil, and Catalyst demonstrates how easy it could be for otherwise good men to be swayed into the employ of fascism through domineering propaganda and the normalization of hate and corruption.
Star Wars has always been political, but to read this book so soon after the Electoral College appointed Donald Trump - a man who campaigned on a platform of racism and fear, and who lost the popular vote by at least 2 million ballots at the time of this writing - President of the United States hit a few still-raw nerves for me, but Catalyst is certainly a timely read given all that. Set firmly within the burgeoning fascistic Empire, the manipulation of good by evil, and the various degrees of in-fighting within the Empire, make for nicely dark subject matter, but Luceno keeps things light enough to prevent his story from being overwhelmingly dark. There's room for hope, particularly as Lyra scrappily fights to save her marriage and family. As Jyn states in the Rogue One trailer, rebellions are built on hope, and, frankly, I'm with her.
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